Picture this: you’re twenty years old, you’ve just been diagnosed with genital herpes, and you have no idea how long you’ve had it or who might have given it to you. You know you have to do the responsible thing and call everyone you have recently slept with—except eight months ago you had the most epic breakup of your life. It has taken you this long to finally feel over it, to feel over him, and now you have to drag him back into your life after a clean break.
This interview is about that phone call, and what happened next.
Ella: So to provide some context, you and I dated on and off for a very long time. We had a Ross and Rachel type of relationship through my high school career—
The Ex I Had to Call: I prefer Topanga and Cory, but that’s okay.
This is when you being three years older shows itself: our pop culture reference points. Anyway, we were on and off for a while and then the summer before my junior year of college we started a serious relationship. We broke up in October because long distance was fucking hard.
The following spring, I was diagnosed with genital herpes. At the time I didn’t know how long I’d had it or where I’d gotten it, and I had to call you and speak to you for the first time in seven or eight months. I reached your voicemail, and I left what was by far the most awkward and painful voicemail I have ever made.
It was basically, “Hey, so… I have genital herpes and you should probably get tested, and as much as it sucks to get this voicemail, it’s even harder for me to leave it, so text me when you get this.”
I think that’s exactly what you said. I had that voicemail saved for a while, I don’t know why, but that’s word-for-word what you said.
What was going on with you at the time, and what was your first reaction when you got that voicemail?
I was playing video games with my roommate when my phone started buzzing on the table. We both looked down and saw your name, and at that point we hadn’t spoken since October. I remember my roommate looking at me and saying, “Let it go to voicemail, you don’t want to pick that up right now.” And I was like, “Yeah man, thanks for looking out for me, that’s right, I don’t want to talk to her!”
And then I noticed it stopped ringing, obviously, and went to voicemail. And then the voicemail didn’t come in for a bit. And then it came in after like a minute, and I was like, “Shiiit.” It’s not one of those, “Hey listen, I was thinking about you, give me a call” voicemails, which is what I thought it would have been. I was like, “Shit this is really long.” I went outside to listen to it because there wasn’t a lot of privacy in that apartment.
It was a small apartment.
Yeah, so I went outside. And I remember hearing it and thinking, “Oh, fuck. That’s just lovely.” At the time I was seeing someone, and my first thought was, “Oh great, we just had sex for the first time like a week ago, and I thought I was totally clean and now I know I have it.” That was my first dreaded gut reaction, like, “Gotcha.”
Then I remember talking to my roommate about it, because he poured me a glass of Scotch. That’s been a recurring moment in my life when something bad or monumental happens: my roommate looks at me and silently pours a glass of Scotch.
That’s definitely a moment that requires Scotch.
So your first reaction was, “Oh shit, I now have herpes.” It wasn’t even necessarily doubt?
Yeah, I don’t know why. I normally try to think on the bright side, almost to a fault. But in this case, my immediate thought was that I had it.
I assume you went inside and told your roommate about the voicemail, or did he just sense something was wrong?
Oh no, I told him. I said, “Hey I need your help with this, this is super DL but I need someone right now.” And he helped as much as he could.
Through bro support.
What did you do next? Did you turn to Google?
I did do some research as to like, what are symptoms if I would have noticed them. Or could it lay dormant? I was trying to get the basics… And even, what exactly is herpes? It’s something that a lot of people don’t totally understand. Once I got a general idea of it I was like, “Well, I don’t think I have it because I haven’t noticed any of this stuff, but then again it could just be sitting there and I didn’t know…” so that freaked me out real good.
But I remember the worst feeling was—whether I had it or not—I was mostly thinking about you. Just being like, “Oh shit, that sucks that she’s going through this, that’s really shitty.”
You texted me to say you got my voicemail. I remember apologizing and you saying not to apologize, I’d done absolutely nothing wrong. And I remember you asking if I was okay, and the fact that you—even if you probably were freaking out, by the sound of it—to me it was so comforting to have you say, “It’s okay, we’re going to deal with it, how are you, I’m more worried about you right now.”
That meant a lot to me, especially because I felt like I had… it was the ultimate losing the breakup, you know? We hadn’t spoken in so months, it had been this epic breakup. And then to call and be like, “Heyyy…” was horrifying. I remember being so ashamed. That was one of the scariest parts of getting diagnosed, knowing I had to call you.
How did you think of me in that moment? It sounds like you were concerned.
I was mostly concerned. I thought that it was an awful thing to have happened to you. ‘Cause you’ve always been for sexual liberation and all of that, and it’s like… I don’t know if it’s ironic. Is it irony? You’re the writer.
It was very interesting.
It sounds like it wasn’t… there was no judgment, it was just kind of like, “Oh man.”
Yeah, I’m not going to judge you for that. If you did something knowingly… what I’m trying to say is even if you were knowingly careless about it, I still wouldn’t wish that on anyone. This happens on sitcoms where someone’s like, “I got a call from my ex and she has herpes, ha ha ha! Finally!” And it’s like, no. When it actually happens to you, that’s not what you’re thinking at all.
You mentioned not really knowing what herpes was. How had you thought about it before?
It was always a punch line for less clever jokes. It was always, “Can I have a bite of your sandwich?” “Yeah if you don’t mind herpes.” And then it became very real.
Because you’d never met anybody with herpes… it’s not something we’re sensitive to until we see people we love with it, I guess.
Right. That’s 100% right.
How did you go about testing? What was that process like?
I had to find a doctor that was in network, which was a bitch to find in my area. And then I had to get an appointment, which was a bitch with my work schedule. But I don’t know, eventually I got the time.
It’s interesting that it was logistically very complicated and difficult for you to get tested. I think that’s something that people don’t realize. In college it’s pretty easy if there’s a student health center. But in the real world, with insurance being what it is and herpes requiring a blood test, it’s very difficult to find the time to get tested, to be able to pay to get tested, and to find a doctor that’s even willing to test you.
That pretty much sums it up. I could totally see how people could just not do it. I’ve heard of people who were afraid to find out the truth so they put it off, but I don’t know.
When I told the girl I was seeing, that was fucking heavy.
Yeah, what was that like?
We were hanging out that night, strangely enough.
She noticed something was off almost immediately, and I was like, “Wellllll, I got a phone call from an ex.” I remember her taking it very well, to the point where I was very confused. Like, “You’re not at all freaking out?’” But I don’t know, she was good with it. I let her know as soon as I got tested that I was good, and she let me know as soon as she did.
I love that there’s a ripple effect of STI testing after a diagnosis. I got diagnosed, and then I called you to get tested, and then you called her to get tested.
And youuuu were the epicenter!
I was the epicenter of so much knowledge! So when you did come back herpes negative, what was that like?
I remember the relief of getting the phone call and being told that I was, you know, clean. It was a good weight off my shoulders, ‘cause it’s all that you can think about. Or not all that you can think about, but it keeps popping back into your head all the time. It’s nice to have that weight come off. I had a pregnancy scare with an ex a while back, when this girl lied about being pregnant to keep me around, and I liken that to this. When her best friend told me that she’d been making up everything, it was like getting that call.
You’re off the hook!
It was like, “All right, that’s done, you can move on now, you’ve learned how you deal with a crisis.” And I’ve learned through that and through you getting diagnosed that the way that I handle news like this is by completely ignoring my own emotions and concentrating on the other person, and then one day I just explode. [He laughs.] I’ve learned to not do that anymore.
You have to take care of yourself. I appreciate that you did a wonderful job hiding your worry from me, because I was not in a position to handle it. Part of the reason I love doing these interviews is finding out what was going on in the other person’s head that they didn’t want to share with me for my own good. I’m so grateful for the choices people made to protect me, but it is wonderful hearing about them now that I can handle them. Because of course you were freaking out. Realistically no one would want herpes. It’s not a big deal, but it’s still a skin condition and it does change your life. I get annoyed when people are like, “No it’s fine, it’s totally fine.” You’re allowed to not want herpes, I’m not going to be mad at someone for not wanting to have herpes.
Anyway, do you approach STIs differently now with partners?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I know from you that someone could say, “Yeah yeah, I’m good, I’m clean,” and that’s not enough.
They could be full of shit, or they could just not know.
Exactly, and that’s the thing: they could genuinely not have any idea. That’s where it turns into, “No, but seriously, when was the last time you were tested?”
It’s a more involved conversation now.
Yes. And it’s shocking how many people are like, “…I don’t know.” You don’t fucking know? And you wanna have sex with ME?
Everyone thinks, “It’s not gonna be me.”
I remember thinking if I ever got an STD, I would get one of the fashionable, curable ones. I distinctly remember that being a thought at some point, like, “I’m never going to get HPV, I’m never going to get herpes. I’ll probably get chlamydia and take some antibiotics.”
It’ll be good! It’ll be like getting the flu.
It’ll be the flu, but for my vagina.
That’s my understanding of it. I did my research, I went on Wikipedia!
Do you think you would be comfortable dating someone with an STI?
Yeah, I think so! I mean, if precautions were made, as long as we’re responsible about it.
We actually became very good friends after I got diagnosed and contacted you. It was a little rocky for a while because I was in a shitty relationship and wasn’t myself, but when you moved back to New York we picked up where we left off. Finally the Ross and Rachel element of our friendship was resolved. We had grown in different directions and we really care about each other and love each other but we both want different things. We were able to be close and important to each other and not have the angst and drama of the “Will they or won’t they” crap anymore.
I remember this past winter asking you when I was drunk in a very weird moment of vulnerability, “Am I different now?” And you were like, “Stop it, you’re fantastic,” because you could tell I was upset. But you’ve known me longer than anyone other than my parents, and I am curious if you have any observations of how I might have changed.
You are different, but you’re better, if that makes sense. You’re way more outspoken in a very good way. You already were, but now you’re a powerhouse. You have things you want people to hear and you’re making your voice heard. This kicked you into turbo charge. Now you have a mission.
It’s interesting, it’s almost like—and excuse me for being a nerd but this is what I relate everything to—this is your radioactive spider. It’s weird and funky and it changed your body, but now you have this goal and this purpose. With great herpes comes great responsibility.
Oh man. That’s going to be the quote that everybody tweets from this.
So we were kind of a legendary couple in our clique of weird theater kids in high school.
To the point where some of my closest friends… They don’t necessarily roll their eyes but they give me that impression when I mention you. They’re like, “Oh you guys are still talking to each other? Jesus.”
Yeah, I get shit from my friends too. I went out to brunch with a friend and she was like, “I saw a picture of you with him recently at an event, are you guys dating?” And I was like, “Nooo, we’re just friends, we finally got over all that.”
And they’re like oookay, alllll right.
So in light of that, and in light of the fact that I now very publicly identify as herpes positive, have you gotten any weirdness from anyone? Any concern or curiosity?
[He laughs.] No, not really. I’m chronically afraid of what people think of me, so I always wonder.
I wonder about people being assumed to have herpes because they boned or are boning me. It’s a very real thought that people have, and I don’t mean to make light of it, I can understand the concern.
Is it ever annoying how much I talk about herpes?
Sometimes, but it’s not that bad.
[I laugh.] That is totally fair.
I can’t get annoyed with it because you’re doing shit with it, you know what I mean? Of course you’re talking about it, because you’re busy changing the world. People are going to get annoyed because they always get annoyed when people try to change the world.
Yeah it’s super inconvenient for the world that I’m trying to make them more aware of their sexual health. I’m such a pain in the ass.
Hey! Daredevil just dropped on Netflix, okay, people are busy.
People have other things to do.
Do you have any advice for people who have either gotten that phone call or are making that phone call? Or just for people in general dating people with herpes?
I can only stress what you said to me, which is yes, it’s really shitty getting that phone call, but you can’t jump to anger or frustration. You may be having a rough time with this, but the person who contacted you is… multiply that by the number of sexual partners that person has had, and that’s what they’re dealing with. It is about you and you need to think about you, and that was my mistake, not thinking about me so much. You do need to make sure the other person is okay, but you can’t just do that.
You have to take care of yourself while still being respectful to the person going through this crazy thing. This has been really cool, thank you for being willing to talk about this with me. That’s super awesome.
People ask me if I could, would I go back and not get herpes? And I would honestly say I would not change a thing. One of the main blessings of getting sick was that I got you back in my life.
That’s really fucking sweet.
I mean it’s… fuck you, it’s true! I don’t know if we would have found our way back to each other. I’d like to think that we would have, but in a weird way it made it easier. It stripped us down to the core of what made us love each other, and it gave us a reason why we had to be back in contact.
I totally agree.
So, not a phone call or a voicemail that I regret leaving.
Good, I don’t regret it either.